A new exhibition at the British Museum, curated by Private Eye editor and TV personality Ian Hislop, will explore the history of dissent, resistance, and satire in different cultures and eras. The idea for the exhibition came from art historian and former museum director Neil MacGregor, who wanted to subvert the traditional museum narrative and present art from the perspective of the underdogs and the dissenters of history. Hislop’s aim in choosing pieces for the exhibition was not so much to display art of revolutionary protest but rather to find and celebrate objects that in some subtle or whimsical way thumb their nose at authority. “Dissent allows you to cover all the motivations”, says Hislop – “from really serious people who want to bring down the state to less serious people who want to have a good laugh at someone else’s expense”.
The objects displayed cover a wide range of time periods and settings, from ancient Babylon to Trump’s America. A brick from the sixth century BC features the name of King Nebuchadnezzar, over which a cheeky bricklayer has inscribed his own name, Zabina. A small act of rebellion from a bored and underpaid worker, or perhaps a dare between friends; whatever the motivation, Zabina’s name has lived on alongside the mighty king’s. Fast-forward to the sixteenth century and a rather more elaborate and expensive act of dissent; a salt-cellar made of fragments of old reliquaries and hidden religious symbolism that certainly looks more at home on the altar than the dinner table, owned at a time when Catholicism was illegal. Perhaps more recognisable to a contemporary audience, the exhibition also features one of the pink knitted hats worn by female protesters against Donald Trump.
Hislop is passionate about satire and is keen to distinguish it from revolution or overt political clash. He argues that by and large it is “ small-c conservative”, influencing the landscape of conversation by mocking or undermining rather than turning up outside parliament with placards. Ultimately, Hislop hopes that visitors will get a sense of the long history of satire and dissent. “We tend to patronise the past and imagine we’re much cleverer and braver than anyone has ever been”, Hislop comments; “I think [visitors] will be surprised at how long and in how many different cultures people have felt sufficiently bold to say ‘No’”.
Applicants for History of Art, Politics, or HSPS might be interested in learning more or attending the exhibition which opens on the 6th of September 2018. Students may wish to think about how art and artefacts play a part in political or social conversations and how art can be used in protest, whether overt or covert. Applicants could also consider the nature of satire; is is effective? Is Hislop right to say that it is by nature conservative?